In 1908 Beatrix Cresswell claimed that the church of Holy Trinity on South Street "has been almost the worst architectural sufferer in the city". The candidate for that title, over a century later, is much longer than it was even in Cresswell's day but the complete demolition and rebuilding of the ancient church in 1820 was certainly unfortunate.
Built mostly from red Heavitree breccia, Holy Trinity stood just inside the city walls, almost adjacent to the South Gate. The church and the gatehouse were so close to each other that, from a distance, it appeared as if they were two parts of the same structure. Something of this effect can be seen in the drawing left. It shows the view at the bottom of South Street looking out of the city via the South Gate. Only the north-west tower of Holy Trinity is visible to the left, projecting out into the street. The main body of the church lies out of sight behind the timber-framed house, at a right-angle to the street and parallel with the city wall. A narrow passageway ran between the side of the church and the house shown to the immediate left of the tower.
The photo right, a detail from Hedgeland's early 19th century model of Exeter, gives a clearer idea of the relationship between Holy Trinity and the South Gate. George's Meeting, further up South Street, James Street and the city wall can also be seen.
All of the city's medieval gatehouses had parish churches or chapels associated with them. St Cuthbert's was either close to or inside the North Gate. St Bartholomew's was almost certainly in an upper chamber inside the East Gate. St Mary Steps was just through the West Gate. I doubt it was a coincidence that places of worship and sanctuary grew up at what have been the main entrances into Exeter since the 2nd century AD.
Holy Trinity on South Street was in existence by 1200 although the exact date of its foundation is unknown. It's mentioned by Peter de Palerna at the beginning of the 13th century along with another chapel dedicated to the Holy Trinity in Musgrave Alley, close to St Lawrence's church on the High Street. Given the great antiquity of the South Gate it's easy to imagine that a chapel of some sort was on the site before the Norman Conquest but there is no evidence for it. By the end of the 18th century the majority of the parish of Holy Trinity lay beyond the city walls and was described in 1806 as "extensive and populous". It included nearly all of Southernhay and the Quay as well as Magdalen Street and part of Holloway Street. The Trinity Burial Ground, now under the Southgate Hotel and car park, was established close to Holy Trinity church in 1664.
A detail from Hooker's 1587 map of Exeter is shown left with both the tower of Holy Trinity and the South Gate clearly visible. The gatehouse to the Bishop's Palace can be seen in the background.
Alexander Jenkins visited the medieval church in 1806, describing it as "a handsome Gothic edifice, kept in good repair". The tower contained "four small untunable bells, and a clock and dial". Both the gatehouse and the tower of Holy Trinity caused a significant narrowing of South Street as the thoroughfare passed under the South Gate. Jenkins mentions "an arched building adjoining the tower, once the habitation of the Priest, but now of the Sexton". The priest's house was located "over the king's high way" i.e. over South Street itself. In the early 17th century it was known as the Parsonage House and was entered from South Street via a Gothic doorway. According to Jenkins the interior of the church consisted of "a chancel, nave and one aisle". The aisle was separated from the nave by "six clustered pillars", and there were also two galleries. Jenkins also describes "a neat monument" on the north side of the chancel in memory of John Wyse, a merchant who died in 1686.
The image right is a detail from Benjamin Donn's 1765 map of Exeter showing the location of Holy Trinity just inside the city walls.
Little else would be known about the medieval building if it wasn't for the remarkable survival of one particular document. It was written in 1452 when Bishop Lacy held the See of Exeter and refers to an enquiry ordered by the Bishop following a request by Simon Chudleigh, then Rector of Holy Trinity. The enquiry revolved around the issue of when the church was first dedicated. The document reveals that the church was already so old and decayed by the beginning of the 15th century that some major rebuilding was necessary. The building works were carried out under a previous rector, John Govys, who assumed the position from 1402 until 1416. The repairs were extensive and it appears that the church was closed for a considerable period of time. The roof was replaced and the south and west walls were rebuilt. The north wall remained intact apart from some timber additions to the upper part to help support the roof. It's possible that these repairs deliberately coincided with a major rebuilding of the South Gate between 1410 and 1420. (Bishop Stafford held the See of Exeter between 1395 and 1419. A detail from his alabaster effigy in Exeter Cathedral, covered in post-Reformation graffiti, is shown below left.)
It was customary to celebrate annually the date when a church was originally consecrated. The problem at Holy Trinity lay in the fact that the church was closed for so long during the repairs that by 1452 no-one could be quite sure when the feast of dedication should take place or whether the church had been desecrated during the renovations. This is why the rector Simon Chudleigh approached Bishop Lacy and Lacy's enquiry attempted to rediscover the date of the consecration.
The enquiry took place in the church itself on 23 August. It was led by the Archdeacon of Exeter and nine of the oldest inhabitants of the parish were interviewed as witnesses. The witnesses included Ralph Ferrant, a blacksmith aged around seventy-six or more who had lived in Exeter for over sixty years; John Whytton, who was 80-years-old; Nicholas Bishop, a tucker who worked in the city's cloth industry and was aged over seventy-four, and Simon Riggeway who was over seventy. These people would've been regarded as exceptionally ancient given that the average lifespan was between 30 and 40!
None of the nine witnesses could remember when or by whom the church was first dedicated because their memories did not extend back that far but they all seemed to agree that the church's feast day was the 30 September, the feast day of St Jerome. They also declared that they had seen the church prior to the renovations and it had retained the signs of dedication. These 'signs' were twelves crosses which had been painted on the walls of the church prior to the feast of dedication (three on each of the four interior walls). Above each cross a nail was driven into the wall from which was suspended a candle that was lit as part of the annual dedication ceremony. The witnesses also swore that the church hadn't been desecrated during the building works over thirty years before.
The image right shows Holy Trinity and the two arched passageways of the South Gate as drawn by John Hooker c1555.
As well as relating the information about the earlier rebuilding of the walls and the roof, the witnesses also revealed that the church had contained "a soler" i.e. a gallery or loft from which members of the congregation could witness the service. There was also a high altar made of stone in the chancel and outside the chancel were three other stone altars. The central altar of the three was dedicated to the Virgin Mary. Another was dedicated to St Giles and featured a wooden statue of the saint set within a niche or tabernacle in the wall.
Near the stone baptismal font was an effigy of the corpse of John de Susseter who had been made Rector of Holy Trinity in 1349. The nature of this effigy is a slight mystery. It sounds like a cadaver tomb which usually depict a sculpted decomposing corpse, or transi. Two examples of this macabre type of monument can still be seen in Exeter Cathedral, detail left. They didn't become widespread in England until c1420 onwards by which time John de Susseter was long dead. (The two examples in Exeter Cathedral are from the 16th century.) It's possible that Susseter's monument was a very early example or perhaps it was something quite different entirely. Unfortunately no further details about the effigy are given and its fate is unknown. The witnesses also testified to the fact that the place of John de Susseter's burial could be seen as the ground had sunk following the decomposition of the body. The enquiry concluded that the feast of dedication was indeed on 30 September and that the church hadn't been desecrated during the repairs. The document remained in the parish chest at Holy Trinity for centuries until it was framed, hanging on the wall of the vestry of the post-1820 structure. Today it is presumably either in the cathedral archives or the Devon Records Office.
The composite image right gives some idea of how the medieval church and the South Gate would appear today in South Street if they had both avoided demolition.
On 18 May 1529 the mayor granted the church a piece of land for a new aisle (presumably the aisle mentioned by Jenkins in 1806). Before this date the church probably consisted solely of a nave and chancel, as St Pancras' church still does today. A Corporation Act states that the aisle was to be 12ft wide, extending out "from the churche wall of the Trinity aforesaid, towards the wall of the Citie, and 32 fote of length". The church was to pay the city 2s every year in perpetuity for the use of the land. In 1656, during the Commonwealth that followed the English Civil War, the number of parish churches in Exeter was reduced to just four. On 19 June 1658 Holy Trinity was sold to its parishioners for £100. The parish was restored following the Restoration in 1660. Apart from the addition of the aisle in the 1520s, the fabric of the church appears to have remained largely unchanged from the early 15th century until Jenkins visited in 1806.
Plans for the demolition of Holy Trinity had surfaced by 1817. On 31 July both the church and the tower were described in a letter sent to the 'Exeter Flying Post' as "decayed and delapidated" and "a great and dangerous public nuisance...long and universally complained of." The tower blocking part of South Street seems to have been a particular source of irritation. It seems that not everyone agreed with the proposed demolition and rebuilding of Holy Trinity. One parishioner, calling himself 'Trinitarian', smelt a rat in the fact that the church had been declared unsound at what he called a "convenient time". It does seem strange that just ten years earlier Jenkins had claimed that the church was "kept in good repair".
Space was also an issue. The medieval church could only sit around 400 worshippers whereas there were approximately 1900 in the extensive parish of Holy Trinity. The two options were either to repair and enlarge the church or to demolish it completely and build a new one. On 03 December 1818 a parish meeting voted on a proposition brought forward by Samuel Milford. The proposal included "taking down entirely the present Church and rebuilding it of dimensions adequate to the population of the parish". The motion was carried unanimously and the church was demolished in the spring of 1819. The South Gate followed soon after.
It's unfortunate that the old church wasn't repaired and retained. Cresswell said that "nothing could check the all-devouring monster of 'street improvement'", which had "assimilated one old building in the city after another". Cresswell also refers to the "architectural deformities" of the replacement church, designed and built by Robert Cornish and his son, local architects, and constructed at a cost of £7000 above. Brick-built with a stucco exterior, the new church was opened on Christmas Eve 1820 and no-one seems to have a good word to say about it. Just a year after its completion it was described by George Oliver as "inelegant" and Robert Dymond called it "singular". More recently, Hugh Mellor described the building as "shabby" and wonders whether its destruction during the Blitz wouldn't have been "a merciful release". It doesn't help that post-war demolition of the surrounding area has left the building standing in such a prominent position, stripped of its context within a larger historical landscape. The church was deconsecrated in the 1970s and in 1977 was taken over by the White Ensign Club who divided it horizontally into two separate floors. No ecclesiastical fixtures survive, although one window contains a late 19th century nativity scene in stained glass. The White Ensign Club, as it is now known, is Grade II listed.
The photograph below shows the former Holy Trinity church on the right with South Street receding into the distance. The location of what was once one of the South Gate's huge round towers is picked out in brick on the pavement to the left.